Image: Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons;
Words: Olivier Stephenson
“To live with the conscious knowledge of the shadow of uncertainty, with the knowledge that disaster or tragedy could strike at any time; to be afraid and to know and acknowledge your fear, and still to live creatively and with unstinting love: that is to live with grace.”
-- Peter Abrahams, The View From Coyaba, 1985
The year 1955 was an interesting year in Jamaica’s colonial life. It was the year it celebrated its tercentenary as a British colony (aka “Jamaica 300”); Norman W. Manley was elected Chief Minister; author Roger Mais’s novel, Black Lightning, was published (the same year he died); John Hearne’s novel, Voices Under the Window, was also published; Princess Margaret visited the island as part of a larger tour of the British West Indies colonies; and when Peter Abrahams was sent by the British Colonial Office in London to write a book on Jamaica at Manley’s behest.
Before he came to Jamaica, Abrahams was already internationally recognized as the first major African writer to be published in the mainstream British and American circuits. His first novel, The Path of Thunder (1948), made the New York Times bestseller list. He had been a correspondent in Kenya and South Africa for the London Observer and the New York Herald Tribune in New York and Paris.
Peter Abrahams died February 18, 2017, at his home in Rock Hall, St. Andrew. He was 97.
Speaking of on behalf of RJRGleaner at a thanksgiving service for his life at the Church of the Transfiguration in Meadowbrook, St Andrew, Jamaica, Group Chief Executive Officer Gary Allen said, “We … have over 40 years of simple, straightforward, incisive, analytical journalism still relevant to us to read, re-read, re-listen and to ponder, produced by this 5-ft 7-inch giant.” Up to the time of his death, Allen said Abrahams’s analytical skills were very much intact.
“He told me before it happened that the Government would change in Jamaica, as it did last February.” Allen said. “He also predicted that Britain would vote to leave the European Union and said racist America will vote for Donald Trump to be president.”
Added Allen: “Peter’s mark on Jamaica is indelible. His one dozen books are precious gifts, but his best gift was his heart for humanity and especially Jamaica.”
Abrahams who would have turned 98 on March 3, sadly and tragically, died not by natural causes but by murder.
First reports of his death stated that a lot of blood was found at the scene and that there was a possibility he could have fallen from his wheelchair. However, according to a Jamaica Gleaner report, investigators did not have any reasons to suspect foul play but were “not ruling out anything” at that time. Some five days after that initial report a post-mortem revealed Abrahams died from “blunt-force trauma to the head, neck, and chest”. He was murdered.
According to Assistant Commissioner of Police Ealan Powell, head of the Jamaica Constabulary Force’s Criminal Investigations Branch, Abraham’s injuries identified in the post-mortem report were “consistent with someone being badgered”. The definition of “badgered” means being “pestered”, harassed”, or “harried”, etc. With the type of incident that took place at his residence, a home invasion, which could in one instance therefore be referred to as the victim having been in fact “badgered”.
But, perhaps, the assistant police commissioner could have meant to say, “bludgeoned” instead of “badgered”? For that word would be far more accurate with the description given in the post-mortem report. But at the risk of splitting hairs and getting into semantics – albeit it is something that would be niggled with in a court of law – is the reality of what actually occurred at the Abrahams residence.
The Gleaner report also noted that Abrahams experienced “at least five break-ins” at his home over a period of four months in 2016, which resulted in the installation of a security alarm system.
The Jamaica Sunday Observer (2/19/17) reported that the police had arrested the alleged suspect of Abrahams’s murder – though some Red Hills, St. Andrew residents think that others may have been involved. The identity of the perpetrator of the crime has now been revealed as one Norman Tomlinson, 61, of Cyprus District in Red Hills, St Andrew and has been charged with the crime following a Q&A session by the Constant Spring Criminal Investigation Branch.
And while it might be some small consolation to learn that someone has been caught for the crime, the fact nevertheless remains that since it was officially revealed that Abrahams’s death was caused by murder, there has been no outcry from nary a quarter. Nothing from neither the prime minister, acting commissioner of police, minister of national security, civil society, pundits, or literary community, for that matter. Zero. Naught. Period. Sad.
The manner in which Peter Abrahams died should be viewed by any description as a major tragedy. The fact that there has been no outcry further compounds this reality.
A matter of this nature immediately puts into question everything from what the average Jamaican citizen supposedly claims to believe in right to the country’s very Constitution. Jamaicans are known as avid talkers who possess opinions on just about every topic and who vociferously can be heard expressing themselves daily on a plethora of talk shows on the airwaves. And with all that in mind no one has picked up the clarion call – or Abeng – to say anything about Peter’s Abraham’s murder? It begs such questions as what has happened to the national value system? What does this say about the overall national mind-set? Is there a statement being signalled that there is an undeniable gradual dissent into moral decrepitude in the country’s contemporary history at this juncture of the 21st century? Has the population become so inured to the deepening stain, stench and blight of crime that it now has simply become a normal accepted way of life? Really?
Crime, as it is currently being experienced in Jamaica, is out of control. What can be said about a society where young children, women and the elderly are being slain at an increasing rate with no tangible measure being evidenced to cauterize this rapidly growing social cancer? It is a grim spectre that, by all indications, will be around for a very long time to come.
Anthony Clayton, Alcan professor of Caribbean sustainable development at the University of the West Indies (UWI), said in a Gleaner report in January 2016 that given the recurring nature of murders in Jamaica, “the number is actually much higher than in a war”. He also noted: “If you look at gang-related and domestic violence, it is eight times higher than in the hottest war zone, yet people don’t make that comparison very often”.
In part of his Statement to the Parliament in September 2016, Minister of National Security Robert Montague said crime in Jamaica is a “multidimensional problem that requires multifaceted responses.” He also stated that while the country did not get to this point overnight the real solutions to Jamaica’s crime problem “will take time, commitment, resources and sincere cooperation across the divide of this Honourable House”.
In the United States one of the biggest scourges of crimes being witnessed recently is that of police killings of young black males, which, as a result, has brought about the Black Lives Matter movement. The types of crimes now being committed in Jamaica have gone from standard types – if it can be called that – to the bizarre, with gruesome slayings of young children, females to the very elderly such as Abrahams.
But there have been in fact outcries regarding the vicious deaths of women throughout the country over the past year and most recently such as the case of the headless, decomposed body of a woman found in St Mary, which has triggered a call by gender rights advocate Nadeen Spence for all Jamaicans to join forces and send a strong signal of outrage over the spate of deadly attacks against women.
Also, Gender Affairs Minister Olivia “Babsy” Grange has used the woman’s killing as a means of imploring the “good men and women” of the country to start speaking out against such crimes.
“These acts of brutality against our women and girls must stop,” Grange said. “They are unacceptable, and we must do all we can to ensure that the perpetrators are caught and punished under the law.” The minister urged individuals with information on this or other crimes to report to the police. “Let’s be clear about it,” she said, “this evil will flourish if good men and women do and say nothing. It is time to take a stand against violence. No more cover up. Break the silence!”
But doesn’t Abrahams’s murder beg for good men and women to say something about how he lost his life? Here was an elder renowned figure of international proportions whose life was snuffed out through violent means has been totally overlooked – or ignored – nationally. Shameful. Disgraceful.
In a country where salutations of one love and respect are uttered ad nauseam, which makes the gesture meaningless and trite. Where is the love and respect? Evidently, such social acts are devoid in the criminal mind.
Here was a man who while he was a public figure, had, since his retirement at the age of 80, lived a peaceful, reclusive life with his wife, the painter, Daphne Abrahams, at their hilltop home with a lovely view overlooking the city of Kingston.
On his 90th birthday, the University of the West Indies staged a symposium on March 11, 2009 at its Mona campus. “As long as the mind is alive, how old I am is an interesting experience,” Abrahams told then Gleaner reporter Howard Campbell. He also described the couple as enjoying retirement with their two dogs and “messing around the computer” and growing Noni on their yard.
The Abrahams’s home, in addition to being consumed by Daphne’s paintings was one that one filled with numerous copies of literary, political, leisure and other types of works stacked atop each other on small tables or lined against shelves, and the ping pong table piled high with copies of the country's two national dailies.
On that occasion, Observer senior reporter Kimone Thompson who was part of a small group of friends and professional acquaintances – including then South African High Commissioner to Jamaica, Faith Doreen Radebe, journalists from the RJR Communications Group and personnel from Ian Randle Publishers, all gathered to pay tribute to Abrahams.
Thompson wrote: “You may not know Peter Abrahams in person and you may be too young to remember his radio commentaries back in the 1970s, but once you cross the sylvan threshold at Coyaba, the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place, at least a little bit … The intertwined worlds of the writer and the painter are the first things that greet you. Then it's the marriage of the old and the new, the antique and the technologically advanced, and finally, the hilltop view. It's only a glimpse, but it's an introduction to the man, the legend, Peter Abrahams.”
The very idea of this brilliant nonagenarian man working and relaxing in the quietude and memory of his late wife and to be intruded upon and viciously assaulted and murdered is an extremely horrifying picture.
In 2016, a total of 24 females were killed in Jamaica. Fifteen of those killings resulted from domestic clashes. At least three females, including a 15-year-old Green Pond high school student and a 23-year-old Burger King employee have been reported killed since the start of 2017.
On the evening February 7, 2017, a group of women and men from various sectors of Jamaican society gathered with purpose to plan and act with urgency as they grieved the tragic loss of the alarming number of women and children. They used the term “collective grief” which is said to permeate community or country after repeated incidents of tragedy and trauma such as the state Jamaica is currently in.
So outcry does exist – but none for Peter Abrahams.
In the 54 years since gaining independence, Jamaica has seen the appointment of 15 commissioners of police. In the last 15 of those years none of those appointees have served out their entire contracts, with the last four abruptly throwing in the proverbial towel.
In April 2013, former Minister of National Security, Peter Bunting, said in a keynote speech at Northern Caribbean University, “For the record, I want to assure all Jamaica that, far from retreating, there is increased determination on my part as minister, and on the part of the administration I represent, to confront and remove the monster of crime and violence from our midst.” Bunting then said: “the best efforts of the security forces by itself will not solve the crime problem in Jamaica, but it is going to take divine intervention, touching the hearts of a wide cross section of the society”.
The death of Peter Abrahams has been reported by many news organisations around the world, including such journalistic powerhouses as The New York Times and The Washington Post. There have been reminiscences – three to be exact – from Jamaican media figures, but there still has been no word of condemnation or outrage of how he died. If the manner in died does not infuriate, what will? He did not die of natural causes but by murder.
In his very last letter in the Gleaner (January 18, 2017) Abrahams wrote: “We do not learn from the past. We wipe it out. So we are forever beginning anew. What a self-made handicap!”
On that same note, it seems, the longer one lives, the sooner one is forgotten and relegated to the past, no matter how importantly one accomplished in life.
Peter Abrahams, Activist, Author, Journalist, Broadcaster
Peter Henry Abrahams Deras was born on March 3, 1919, in Vrededorp, a “coloured” and Asian slum near Johannesburg. His father, James Henry Abrahams Deras (sometimes spelled De Ras), was an Ethiopian who settled in Johannesburg to work in the gold mines. His mother, the former Angelina DuPlessis, was “coloured”, the daughter of a black father and a white French mother.
He was married twice, first to Dorothy Pennington, in 1942, and they were divorced in 1948. He then married the artist Daphne Elizabeth Miller on June 1, 1948 and had three children, Anne, Aron and Naomi and moved to Jamaica in 1956. Daphne Abrahams died in 2016.
Long before arriving in Jamaica, Peter Abrahams was known as the author of a number of ground-breaking works of fiction set in his native South Africa. He was widely acknowledged as one of the 20th century’s most important writers who contributed greatly to the advancement of African literature and was able to help bring important issues in Africa to the global stage during the colonial period of its history.
“As a writer against apartheid, Abrahams spared no effort in exposing the moral, intellectual, political, and all-round bankruptcy of racial oppression,” says Mukoni Ratshitanga of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation in Johannesburg. “The TMF implores our youth to read Peter Abrahams (and others) to better appreciate the cost of freedom and to glean the timeless moral lessons his writings hold.”
Abrahams was also regarded as one of the most prolific writers of Black prose to come out of South Africa. The Britannica Encyclopaedia describes him as the “most prolific” writer who depicted the dehumanizing effect of racism on black people in that nation. His novel Mine Boy (1946) is arguably his most successful novel. The book is seminal work that also earned Abrahams recognition as the first author to bring the horrific reality of South Africa’s apartheid system of racial discrimination to international attention.
According to the South African critic Michael Wade, no previous work of fiction had broken out of the white-imposed stereotype of the hopelessness of black urban life, and “in a characteristic injustice of history, its force was never felt in the South African reality it described.”
The Nobel Prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer, in her introduction to his book The Black Experience in the 20th Century: An Autobiography and Meditation (2001), wrote, “Abrahams is an African writer, a writer of the world, who opened up in his natal country, South Africa, a path of exploration for us, the writers who have followed the trail he bravely blazed.”
As a young man, Abrahams fled South Africa into exile in 1939, following incarceration on trumped-up charge of treason. “I left South Africa because I had come to the end of the line,” Abrahams told Hopeton Dunn, Professor of Communications Policy and Digital Media at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica in a 2011 interview. He had been with a group who were put on trial for treason. “We had said that if this war of 1939 was a war for democracy and they wanted all of us to be a part of their democracy, then let’s taste a little of that democracy, otherwise we’re not going to go to any striking war.” He said there were about half dozen protesters who were put on trial. Abrahams said “the police made it very clear, they’d put us away for so long that we’d be old people before we came out of jail and not able to make any more trouble.”
He found his means of escape as a stoker on a merchant ship where he spent s two dangerous years at sea at the height of World War II before he got to England. By 1945, Abrahams had himself become and established leading figure and member of the community of activists in London who were drawn from a wide cross-section of colonised and oppressed peoples, represented in the heart of a British empire already in decline. Among them were such prominent figures as African-American scholar and activist, W.E.B. du Bois; Trinidadian Pan-Africanist author and journalist, George Padmore; Trinidadian historian, activist, C.L.R James; Africans Jomo Kenyatta, Seretse Khama, Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, all of whom would later become leaders in their respective countries.
It was through this group that protested the degradation of African people on the continent and the diaspora which the first Pan-African Conference decried at the beginning the 20th century. These were people who all contributed incalculably to the development of the intellectual and political view that helped form the anti-colonial movement that finally led to overcoming the demise of apartheid in South Africa in 1994.
He would also later meet the black American authors Richard Wright and James Baldwin when he visited Paris.
It was also from this environment that provided Abrahams with material for his 1956 novel, A Wreath for Udomo, about an English-educated African who returns to rule his native country with tragic results. In 1952 on a trip to South Africa and Kenya produced a book of reporting titled Return to Goli (1953).
It would take a fortuitous meeting with Norman Manley, a leading anti-colonial campaigner in Norman Manley who had just won the elections in 1955 to become Chief Minister of Jamaica.
Abrahams explained to Prof Dunn that the Colonial Office in Britain at the time had a programme where they published books about all their colonial territories attaining self-government usually commissioned former colonial civil servants to write a book about a particular colony and Manley didn’t want that. Manley was in London to defend a Jamaican in a murder case. Manley, in those days “always had meetings with West Indians in London and particularly with Jamaicans, which was how they first met.
“Out of the blue he said to me, ‘Listen, the Colonial Office wants to have a book written on Jamaica, would you ever be agreeable if I put your name forward?’ And I said, ‘All right, it’d be a new experience.’ And whatever pressures he used, the Colonial Office invited me to come to the Caribbean,” Abrahams told Dunn in 2004. His trip to Jamaica produced the publication of Jamaica: An Island Mosaic in (1957). It also initiated a lasting friendship with Norman Manley, and the inducing of a decision to make Jamaica his new home a year later.
His novel, The View From Coyaba, begins: “The air up here had a cool edge to it . . . I sat on a large stone and looked at the world about me in the fading light . . . I felt more at peace on that spot than I had ever felt in my life. Something about this place, something about the mood and feel created by this piece of land made me sure this was the place for us . . . This was where we would build our home.”
Abrahams would call his home Coyaba, the Taino word in their polytheistic religion, meaning a place of tranquillity where they would go to at death that was devoid of all the travails one experienced in life where there would be abundant feasting and dancing. It was their version of heaven.
Oh his home where h and his wife have lived and treasured for 60 years, Abrahams told Dunn that he and Daphne had “… just decided that when we die, this thing has to be preserved as we have it now and will not become a commercial lot. Some writer, some musician, some artist needing some place of tranquillity to work can always come here and spend the time here. So that’s the story of Coyaba.”
Ironically, in 1960, the great Jamaican painter Karl Parboosingh also had a similar idea and sought to develop a proposed artists’ colony called Coyaba in the Port Henderson area outside of Kingston that never materialized due to lack of government funding. The word has since been used for resorts and restaurants on the island’s north coast areas.
As the Caribbean underwent an active anti-colonial struggles towards political
independence from Great Britain, Abrahams would come to accept the ideas of Norman Manley and became a part who helped to bring about Jamaica’s independence in 1962. Abrahams would also later serve Prime Minister Michael Manley particularly in the government take-over and reform of Radio Jamaica, from the British Rediffusion Group.
Abrahams told Dunn in their 2004 interview that Michael Manley what model was to be used for the radio station but that it had to be “people-based”. Abrahams offered Manley advice, which prevailed despite initial resistance from both within Michael Manley’s cabinet and among the local media barons in support of Rediffusion.
Abrahams would later be made chairman of the board of RJR. From that position, he led a process of innovative reform of the ownership structure and governance systems of the station.
But his native South Africa remained his on-going story source material such as the backdrop for his political thriller A Night of Their Own” (1965). There would also be the trans-generational novel The View from Coyaba (1985), the story of black struggle in the Caribbean, the American South and Africa.
What is sadly ironic is that when Abrahams finally made up his mind to settle in Jamaica more than 60 years ago and discovered a spot on hill with a panoramic view in Rock Hall, St. Andrew, he declared: “I don’t have to choose between being a Jamaican and being an African. I’m a human being first, and everything else afterwards. Jamaica did it. When you acquire a piece of land, when the people with love and hatred and resentment and appreciation take you as their own, then you’re at home.”
By the time of his 95th birthday in 2014, writer Ciugu Mwagir of the Kenyan newspaper the Nation noted that Abrahams was easily Africa’s oldest writer of international repute.
For some four decades, Abrahams would broadcast political commentaries on Radio Jamaica and wrote one novel with a non-African setting in This Island, Now (1966), about a political radical who comes to power in an unnamed Caribbean country after the death of its first postcolonial leader.
Abrahams told Jane Bryce in her article “The View from Coyaba” (Issue 61 (May/June 2003) in Caribbean Beat he became “a whole person” when he finally put away the exile’s “little packed suitcase” and when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and apartheid ended he “ceased to have this burden of South Africa and shed it.
“I don’t have to choose between being a Jamaican and being an African” Abrahams said. “I’m a human being first, and everything else afterwards. Jamaica did it. When you acquire a piece of land, when the people with love and hatred and resentment and appreciation take you as their own, then you’re at home.”
Of his home in Rock Hall, Abrahams said he often had the sense of “being in communion with other people and creatures who had inhabited this place in other centuries,” he told Bryce, “We are, always, silently grateful that Jamaica and those who inherited it have allowed us to come here . . . I can think of no other place on earth where we could have received this kind of welcome.” And added as a coda: “An extraordinary people, these Jamaicans.”
In 1994 Abrahams was the Musgrave Gold Medal for his writing and journalism by the Institute of Jamaica and in 2008 on the eve of his 90th birthday, in its national honours list, the government of South Africa, honoured him with the title Companion of he Order of Ikhamanga, a high and distinguished accolade of that nation.
While older generation Jamaicans can remember Peter Abrahams from his radio broadcasts, the younger generation need to at least have a knowledge and understanding of who he was as an international figure. Furthermore, in the absence of any outcry, apparently then, the matter can now therefore be relegated into the hands of sociologists to ponder.
Works by Peter Abrahams: Song of the City (1943), Mine Boy (1946), Path of Thunder (1948), Wild Conquest (1950), Return to Goli (1953), Tell Freedom (1954), A Wreath for Udomo (1956), Jamaica: An Island Mosaic (1957), This Island, Now (1966), The View from Coyaba (1985), The Coyaba Chronicles: Reflections on the Black Experience in the 20th Century (2000).
Olivier Stephenson is a freelance writer and author of Visions and Voices: Conversations with Fourteen Caribbean Playwrights (Peepal Tree Press, 2013).